Bo McCarver’s weekly housing news compilation – 3/24/2009

As the recession evolves to a depression, those in the top income bracket cling to their accumulations and wait for new days of profiteering. Further down in the food chain, the masses roil as ways-to-make-ends-meet fall short.

At the very bottom of the morass, the nation’s homeless creep from spot to spot; surviving one hour to the next. Their desperation and alienation are captured in the last two articles below.

For a pdf version of the full stories, plus contextual articles on social, environmental and legal areas, contact Bo McCarver at bmccarver@austin.rr.com

U.S. housing rescue threatened by banks
By Patrick Rucker and David Lawder           Reuters       Mar 23, 2009
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Treasury Department’s effort to help 5 million homeowners win reworked mortgages, part of a plan to stabilize housing, could fall flat if Wall Street does not relax its interest in the properties.

While the initiative empowers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to refinance borrowers whose homes have lost value in recent years, big banks own a small stake in many of those loans and could effectively block the plan.

Fed Drives Down Mortgage Rates
Decision to pump $1.2 trillion into U.S. economy raises risk of inflation

By Jeannine Aversa and Alan Zibel       Associated Press        March 19, 2009
WASHINGTON – Mortgage rates tumbled to historic lows Thursday after the Federal Reserve’s sudden decision to print $1.2 trillion and pump it into the economy, a move that also triggered warning signs of inflation – a weaker dollar and the highest oil prices of the year.

The national average rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage fell to 4.94 percent, down nearly a quarter of a percentage point from a day earlier, according to financial publisher HSH Associates.

It was the first time the average had fallen below 5 percent since the publisher began keeping records in 1979. But mortgages were not exactly being passed out freely. Lenders remain extremely strict about who qualifies.

Bank opens ‘homeownership centers’ to help
By Carolyn Said        San Francisco Chronicle      March 18, 2009
After a year of fruitlessly asking Washington Mutual to lower her mortgage payments, Stacey Rustrum of Pittsburg took her twin toddlers and marched into an Oakland bank branch on Tuesday, hoping that in-person help would accomplish what her hours of phoning had not.

“I saw this on the news this morning and came on down,” she said as she pushed one twin’s wheelchair and grasped the other’s hand. “They can’t pretend I’m not here.”

What she’d heard about was a “homeownership center,” a new concept designed to help struggling borrowers initiated by banking giant JPMorgan Chase, which now owns WaMu, as well as EMC, the former lending division of Bear Stearns.

Americans fear home price drop accelerating
Reuters       March 20, 2009
NEW YORK – Americans fear home prices will drop more sharply in the coming year, despite government efforts to resuscitate the battered real estate sector, according to a poll released on Friday.

U.S. homeowners surveyed by Reuters and University of Michigan predicted their home values would fall by 2.2 percent in the year ahead, the biggest anticipated decline in the past few years.

This predicted decline in March was steeper than the expected average fall of 1.9 percent in February.

Renters In the Crosshairs
Community organizers are fighting for renters facing eviction because of foreclosure.

By Daniel Fireside       Dollars and Sense        March 20, 2009
By Daniel FiresideThe United States is in the midst of a national foreclosure crisis that threatens to wreak havoc not just on homeowners, but also tenants, urban neighborhoods, and entire cities. Community organizers and legal activists are working hard to stop it.

Over 2 million properties went into foreclosure proceedings last year, a number that experts fear could jump to 10 million in the next few years. Foreclosures aren’t just pushing owners into the street. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, renters make up an estimated 40% of families facing eviction because of foreclosure. And because the shakiest loans are concentrated in inner cities, the impact of vacant buildings on already fragile neighborhoods can be devastating.

Everybody Into the Rental Pool
By Susan Stellin         New York Times       March 19, 2009
PEOPLE who buy second homes often harbor the same fallback plan in case their purchase proves to be too much of a stretch: “Well, we can always rent it out if we get in trouble.”

So with belts tightening and the real estate market in turmoil, how is the vacation-rental business holding up?

Although there are few statistics on the national vacation-home rental market, property managers and online listings companies say that more second-home owners are trying to rent out their properties at least part-time, a trend no doubt propelled by the Internet as well as the gloomy economy.

FEMA provides update on activities in Galveston County
Houston Chronicle      March 22, 2009
The Federal Emergency Management Agency just sent an update of its activities in Galveston County as of March 19. Here is the information from the FEMA Galveston Fact Sheet advisory, courtesy of agency spokesman Bill Lehman:

GHA to spend $1M to tear down projects
By Rhiannon Meyers       Galveston County Daily News       March 21, 2009
GALVESTON – The Galveston Housing Authority will spend $1.01 million to tear down two public housing developments, board members decided Friday.

A contract was awarded to Inland Environments Ltd. to tear down Palm Terrace, 4400 Sealy St., and Oleander Homes, 5228 Broadway.

It was not known Friday when demolition would begin.

The housing authority has been trying to move quickly to demolish the projects so the Federal Emergency Management Agency would pick up the tab for removing the debris.

Habitat Adds Demolition to Its Mission
By Monica Davey       New York Times      March 18, 2009
SAGINAW, Mich. – The ordinary scenes of Habitat for Humanity – volunteers with saws and hammers creating homes from scratch on empty dirt – are being upended here.

Volunteers are learning to rip down plaster, pull apart walls and tear off roofs.

To the nonprofit group’s long-held aim of constructing houses for those in need, Saginaw’s affiliate has lately added to its mission by doing the opposite.

As part of an agreement with the city, and with at least $500,000 from the state and federal governments, the Habitat for Humanity volunteers and paid workers plan to demolish two vacant, dilapidated houses here a week, every week, over the next two years. As for creating homes, they will build or refurbish eight houses this year.

Texas woman gets 99 years in mortgage-fraud scheme
Prosecutors allege that at least $3 million was lost by taxpayers.

By Mike Ward        Austin American-Statesman       March 24, 2009
A 52-year-old woman from Gun Barrel City in East Texas was sentenced Monday to 99 years in prison for her involvement in a mortgage-fraud scheme, officials said Monday.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that Kandace Yancy Marriott was convicted by a Navarro County jury last week of engaging in organized crime activity by pocketing mortgage payments on manufactured homes from clients and then letting those clients default on their loans.

Prosecutors allege that at least $3 million was lost by taxpayers because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guaranteed many of the loans.

What $841,000 Will Buy?
By Katherine Gregor       Austin Chronicle      March 22, 2009
The principle behind the Downtown Plan is that if Austin aspires to become a world-class city – or simply remains a livable city as it grows – it needs to invest in world-class urban planning. A Dec. 15, 2005, council resolution initiated the Downtown plan and the search for a consultant. But the scope of work has expanded over time, along with the budget and the timeline. Getting ROMA under contract has dragged out at various stages; the public input process, the city bureaucracy, and too-thin staff support also have slowed progress. The original council resolution included the following still-pressing goals:

  • Modernizing the city’s development codes, which govern height and density;
  • Developing new funding mechanisms to support infrastructure;
  • Planning for transit routes and stations and transit-oriented development around the Convention Center;
  • Establishing guidelines for how government-owned land should be made available for development;
  • Creating more affordable/work force housing.

Ghost Mall? Retail Bagpipes Sound a Dirge for Highland Mall
By Wells Dunbar      Austin Chronicle       March 20, 2009
“Highland Mall is the most centrally located shopping center in Austin,” declares the current fact sheet from mall manager General Growth Properties. That wasn’t always the case. Now surrounded by the city that’s grown around it, it was a destination when it opened in 1971 as Austin’s first “suburban” retail mall. Since then, while Highland itself has grown, so have the city’s competing shopping options. Aside from newer, traditional malls like Barton Creek Square or Lakeline, more urbanist, deluxe destinations like the nascent Mueller redevelopment and the Domain have cropped up, drawing stores and anchor tenants from the aging center. Nowadays, only a fraction of the 5,900 parking spaces at Highland are full, and hundreds of thousands of its million-plus square feet of retail area lie empty. With the recent announcement that Dillard’s two men’s and women’s stores will be closing this year, the future of Highland Mall seems dim.

Warnings have sounded about the mall’s flagging fortunes for years. A 2008 analysis commissioned by Capital Metro regarding its planned Highland Mall commuter rail station – the linchpin to any future redevelopment of the area – politely noted the mall “has shown some signs of decline,” facing competition from newer retailers. It also acknowledged the 2006 closure of anchor store JCPenney “resulting in higher than normal vacancies” in that end of the mall.

(That space now houses FEMA staging operations for Central Texas, firing the antenna of conspiracy theorists locally and across the Web.)

Houston’s Working Class Gets Bumped into Homelessness and Poverty by the Crashing Economy
An already strained system struggles to accommodate a new breed of homeless.

By Mike Giglio         Houston Press      March 17, 2009
Lorenzo Timmons spent most of the ride home staring at the crisp piece of paper in his lap. He remembers thinking, “we won’t have to worry about nothing no more,” and, “everything’s going to be all right.”

Lorenzo, who was 27 at the time, has the reserved, thoughtful demeanor a man his size might develop to put others at ease. He’s bald and broad, 6-foot-3 and more than 300 pounds, and his dark, intense eyes are set deep behind unassuming glasses.

It was a weekday afternoon last April. Lorenzo filled the passenger’s side of a friend’s beat-up Saturn, which was headed south on the 610 Loop.

Houston’s Working Class Gets Bumped by the Crashing Economy: Hardcore Homeless
Recycling in and out of shelters and programs, they always seem to land back on the streets.

By Mike Giglio        Houston Press      MRCH 17, 2009

The man I am,
is not the man I want to be.
And the man I was is not the man I am.
And the man I want to be is the man I’m going to be,
and it’s not the man I am.
–    Steve Shreve

Steve Shreve and his crew hustle across an empty parking lot and jump into a Dumpster, and moving night seems dead even before it starts.

Five minutes earlier, they had breezed right past, their backs to the skyline as Heritage Plaza glimmered overhead in the crisp January night. They crossed the street, then a grass divide, and followed the curve of a highway ramp, forcing traffic to the right, until they reached the small cluster of stunted trees where they’d been living for weeks. Then they stopped short, because all their stuff was gone – cans of food, hand-me-down clothes and sleeping bags, disjointed mementos, bottles of meds.